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Kevork Djansezian  /  AP file
Ruben Studdard, from Birmingham, Ala., left, gets a hug from Texan Kelly Clarkson, right, the previous year's winner of "American Idol," and Tamyra Gray, center, after winning the finale of the television talent show on May 21, 2003. Behind Gray is Georgia's Justin Guarini.
updated 5/26/2004 10:32:51 PM ET 2004-05-27T02:32:51

As its third season draws to a close, “American Idol” has taken on a distinctly Southern-fried flavor.

When North Carolina’s Fantasia Barrino and Georgia’s Diana DeGarmo perform Tuesday and Wednesday in the TV talent show’s season finale, they’ll be following footsteps that have most often walked south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Past winners of the Fox contest include Kelly Clarkson of Texas and Alabama’s Ruben Studdard. Last year’s runner-up, Clay Aiken, is from North Carolina. Even season one’s second-place finisher, Justin Guarini of Pennsylvania, actually grew up in Georgia.

“I think it’s an honest realism,” said Latimer Alexander, mayor pro tem of Barrino’s hometown of High Point. “Their character seems to come forward. People are drawn to others who are real...You can say that’s a Southern trait.”

Jerry Oberholtzer, mayor of DeGarmo’s hometown of Snellville, Ga., was born in Allentown, Pa., raised in New Jersey, and has lived in the South for 23 years. He also believes Southern character has helped the “Idol” contestants.

“A lot has to do with being in the South and being conservative, the respect they both show to the judges,” Oberholtzer said. “You can look at them and say they were brought up well and they respect their elders. It’s not all about them.”

Last year’s runner-up, Aiken, made such a positive impression during his “Idol” run that he headed the National League of Junior Cotillions’ list of the “Ten Best-Mannered People of 2003.”

Southern charmers
Contestants Barrino and DeGarmo attribute their success to native charm.

“I think Southern people are peppy, happy people no matter what and I think people like to grasp onto that,” said 16-year-old DeGarmo. “Southern people are fun, they like to have a good time.”

Barrino says she’s loved just “for being crazy-old, loud-old, chitlin-eatin’ Fantasia.”

Asked to respond to the theory that the South is rising again — this time, on the wings of its crooners — Robert Thompson of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television chuckled, then conceded “there may be some things happening.”

He cited the Grand Ole Opry and Southern churches as reasons why Southern singers may have an advantage. “Right up to the final 32, contestants are singing a capella that goes maybe 30 seconds,” Thompson said. “Certain types of singers when backed up by loud bands can sound good, but make no impression when singing a capella...The tradition of modern church gospel singing is great training for a capella.”

Southern humorist and frequent National Public Radio commentator Roy Blount Jr. agrees, noting that most popular music — blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll — has Southern roots.

“Southerners can sing the way they talk,” he said. “They don’t have to force it.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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